Posts about uk

Disliking the public

There are those in the press and government who don’t like or trust the public they serve. It is an unliberal attitude–which can come from Liberals, by the way–for it doesn’t buy the core belief of liberal democracy that the people properly rule. Two classic examples:

Here we have a German government official saying that it is his job to protect consumers from themselves. In other words, they don’t know best; he does. Nevermind what they do — giving up private data on Facebook or giving Google the highest market penetration anywhere — he says they should do something else. And so he’ll use his regulatory power to change their behavior to his expectation.

And here we have a columnist for the Observer (aka Guardian), Will Hutton, who says in a fit of journalistic hubris that the BBC is “the last bulwark against populist government by the mob.” So the BBC is what protects the public from itself. He further says, “The bile, unfairness and lack of restraint in the blogosphere is infecting the mainstream media and thus American politics.” Which is to say that the press and government were unsullied and free of bile and unfairness until these damned bloggers (read: citizens with tongues) came along to corrupt them.

In both cases, we simply see members of a power structure threatened by the emergence of a public with its own mind and voice. We thus see the conflict that arises out of the rise of publicness. That’s one of the topics I’m thinking through as I write my book.

Human in the throne?

In March, 2007, for a Guardian column, I asked the then-head of now-PM David Cameron’s web strategy whether the man would continues making his personal, folksy videos if he moved into No. 10. Sam Roake replied: “If it suddenly stopped, that would be seen as a very cynical move . . . You can’t stop communicating.” This, he argued, is “a new stage of politics” that is about “sustained dialogue with the public.”

We shall see.

The new No. 10 moved to new YouTube, Flickr, and Twitter addresses. They are putting up press conference videos and linking to photos of the PM.

Yes, but will he talk with the people from the kitchen, as he used to? His last Webcameron video asks people to vote (you’d think he’d at least have one saying thank you). We haven’t yet seen the PM buttering toast. Will he? Can he?

Barack Obama got to office using the internet to be human and then he took on the imperial form of the office, mostly giving pronouncements. And he now inexplicably tries to paint himself as a techofuddy. Nicolas Sarkozy also got to office using video to present himself as human. Now, I suppose, he’s more human than ever — though inadvertently; when I search YouTube for his name, the first video is of him drunk at the G8. Germany’s Angela Merkel, who frankly never came off as terribly warm and human, nonetheless make a podcast.

Can a politician who takes the highest office stay human? In this age, can he or she afford not to? I think Roake was right: not to continue communicating eye-to-eye makes the persona of the campaign into theater or it makes office into theater.

Here’s a video I did of Cameron in Davos in 2008 asking him about talking to small cameras:

Oh, those Brits

My friend Neil McIntosh says he was inspired by my wonder at the British institution of the Pukka Pie (why’d anyone one to puke a pie, I asked) to explain the ritual on his blog as he did for me on my visit to London last week:

When served in a crinkly plastic bag, the top may appear cool, while the foil tray in which they rest is quite warm. Nothing, however, indicates the extraordinary heat in the centre of the pie. N00b pie eaters will dive straight in, and risk serious burns to tongue, lips and even face as the pie contents spill out. Seasoned supporters view this as something of a test; the “serious” fan would not make such a schoolboy error.

The pragmatic pie eater, therefore, may choose to wait 15-20 minutes before consuming the product, knowing that it is piping hot throughout despite its cool exterior. This waiting time is known, at least round seat M108 of the Don Rogers Stand, Swindon, as the “half life” of the Pukka pie. The pie should then be debagged and, by means of gripping the edges of the foil tray while using the index finger to push the bottom of said tray, the pie raised out its container. This allows a safer approach to the snack, all the while ensuring no gravy spills down your front.

I think he’s taking me for a N00b. Surely one can’t eat a piping-hot gravy-and-grease-filled pie as if it were something truly sensible like a hot dog. I’m betting he’s trying to trap me. I have demanded a demonstration.

I am reminded of one of my favorite Calvin Trillin pieces in The New Yorker in which he attended an oyster festival at a bayou firehouse. The firefighters tried to rile N00b oyster-haters by convincing them that REAL men preferred to consume the bivalves by sucking them up their noses. This, Trillin said, made just as much sense to an oyster-fearer as eating them in the mouth.

Neil also points us to Pukka Pie posters, which can be purchased for two quid each (that’s about $300 for us). What’s particularly striking is how they try to make the Pukka Pie into a sexual symbol. But then again, they do produce foodstuffs named after an article of stripper’s clothing.

Odd, those Brits.

Government by Twitter

Well, how’s this for cool: I was reading 10 Downing Street’s Twitter feed and found a link to a speech by blogging MP Tom Watson establishing a task force to implement recommendations in a Power of Information report to open up government data and to involve citizens in government using the social web. Watson said:

The 19th century co-operative movements had their roots in people pooling resources to make, buy or distribute physical goods. Modern online communities are the new co-operatives.

Mrs Watson is a regular user of Netmums. It’s a great site. Parents chat, and offer, I’ve been there, advice on everything from baby whispering to school admissions. Except it’s not just a handful of mums and dads, it’s thousands of them, available in your living room, 24 hours a day.

Sounds like hell well, it’s a lifeline when your baby’s screaming at four in the morning, you have no idea why and you just need to know you’re not alone. But my point is, imagine if quarter of a million mums decided to meet at Wembley Stadium to discuss the best way to bring up their kids. Midwives would be there dispensing advice. Health visitors, nursery teachers, welfare rights advisers would be there. Even politicians would try and get in on the act. But when twice this number chooses to meet together in the same place online, we just ignore them. That’s going to have to change. . . .

We also need to look at the way Government talks to itself. Whitehall is arguably Britain’s most important knowledge factory, but we’re using out of date tools. . . .

To do this within the system I would like to see more use of techniques commonplace now in the wider world, internal blogs, wikis, discussion forums, shared workspaces, all still quite rare within the machine. . . .

Here are some of the ideas I put forward on — what should we call it? — social government, open government, Google government.

: As an aside, there’s an amusing and very British dustup in Watson’s speech over accusations that he stole the idea of open-source the Tories. But, of course, if it’s open, how can anyone own it and thus how can it be stolen? Note also that underneath this is the start of a liberal-v-conservative clash of worldviews approaching open, digital, social government and society. I think that debate is revolving around whether the center of this activity is inside or outside of government and whether the market of ideas and information is sufficient in itself. Anyway, here’s Watson:

I said that I don’t believe the post-bureaucratic age argument. It’s just old thinking, laissez faire ideas with a new badge.

The future of government is to provide tools for empowerment, not to sit back and hope that laissez-faire adhocracy will suffice.

A post bureaucratic age misunderstands the idea of an enabling state one that moderates collaborative activity for a shared social good. The collaborative state still requires leaders and enablers, doers and thinkers. It still requires public services but services with boundaries porous to external ideas.

I said that ideologies that fail to comprehend the power of sharing, where activity is motivated by non-market production or where, as Stephen Weber says the traditional notions of property rights are inverted – are doomed to extinction.

And I talked about the three rules of open source: One, nobody owns it. Two, everybody uses it. And three, anyone can improve it.

Two days later a political opponent sent out an email laying claim that in fact they are the ‘owners’ of these new ideas. I was accused of plundering policies from the Conservatives.

The irony that laying claim to the ownership of a policy on open source was lost to the poor researcher who had spent a day dissecting the speech. He’d been able to do so easily because it was freely available on my blog, a simple tool used for communicating information quickly and at nearly zero cost without the requirement to charge for access.

The point is, who cares? It doesn’t matter who has the ideas. It’s what you do with them and how you improve on them that counts.

But politics will still be politics.

: Note also from Watson’s speech the incredible uptake of epetitions.

Over 7 million electronic signatures have been sent, electronically, to the Downing Street petition website [External website]. 1 in 10 citizens have emailed the Prime Minister about an issue. The next stage is to enable e-petitioners to connect with each other around particular issues and to link up with policy debates both on and off Government webspace.

Bitter, bitter, bitter

Insisting that he’s not bitter and not just complaining about his many blows to the kidney delivered by the UK media — the PM doth protest too much, methinks — Tony Blair nonetheless bites back in a farewell speech moaning about the state of the news:

As a result of being at the top of the greasy pole for thirteen years, ten of them as Prime Minister, my life, my work as Prime Minister, and its interaction with the world of communication has given me pretty deep experience, for better or worse. A free media is a vital part of a free society. You only need to look at where such a free media is absent to know this truth. But it is also part of freedom to be able to comment on the media. It has a complete right to be free. I, like anyone else, have a complete right to speak.

Yes, and media is either free or it isn’t. But Blair tries to argue for reinvigorated regulation. Yet there is no halfway in freedom of speech. That works about as well as trying to be half in Iraq.

He vaguely threatens but, thank goodness, stands in no position of power to do anything:

And there is inevitably change on its way. The regulatory framework at some point will need revision. The PCC [Press Complaints Commission] is for traditional newspaper publishing. OFCOM regulate broadcasting, except for the BBC, which has its own system of regulation. But under the new European regulations all television streamed over the internet may be covered by OFCOM. As the technology blurs the distinction between papers and television, it becomes increasingly irrational to have different systems of accountability based on technology that no longer can be differentiated in the old way.

And that European regulation is terribly dangerous. It means that our simple communication could be regulated. Freedom-loving people should be fighting this intrusion into our conversation, our space.

While continually repeating that he’s not complaining about the media and the people in them, he complains:

I am going to say something that few people in public life will say, but most know is absolutely true: a vast aspect of our jobs today – outside of the really major decisions, as big as anything else – is coping with the media, its sheer scale, weight and constant hyperactivity. At points, it literally overwhelms.

Could this merely be accountability, openness, sunshine? Blair is known as the great controller. The problem is that media cannot be controlled anymore, not by him, not by media themselves, not now that media are passing into the hands of the people. This means we can now more clearly hear the views of the people. Blair calls this cynicism and he blames not the performance of politicians for its growth, but the state of media:

We devote reams of space to debating why there is so much cynicism about politics and public life. In this, the politicians are obliged to go into self-flagellation, admitting it is all our fault. . . . And, believe it or not, most politicians come into public life with a desire to serve and by and large, try to do the right thing not the wrong thing. My view is that the real reason for the cynicism is precisely the way politics and the media today interact. We, in the world of politics, because we are worried about saying this, play along with the notion it is all our fault.

Have you considered that it might, indeed, be your fault?

Like a master of S&M, Blair alternates between bashing and empathizing with media — perhaps because he recognizes, deep within, that it’s the era of centralized control by either estate that’s passing. He wants someone to be in control, damnit.

The reality is that as a result of the changing context in which 21st Century communications operates, the media are facing a hugely more intense form of competition than anything they have ever experienced before. They are not the masters of this change but its victims. The result is a media that increasingly and to a dangerous degree is driven by “impact”. Impact is what matters. It is all that can distinguish, can rise above the clamour, can get noticed. Impact gives competitive edge. Of course the accuracy of a story counts. But it is secondary to impact. It is this necessary devotion to impact that is unravelling standards, driving them down, making the diversity of the media not the strength it should be but an impulsion towards sensation above all else. . . .

First, scandal or controversy beats ordinary reporting hands down. News is rarely news unless it generates heat as much as or more than light.

Second, attacking motive is far more potent than attacking judgement. It is not enough for someone to make an error. It has to be venal. Conspiratorial. Watergate was a great piece of journalism but there is a PhD thesis all on its own to examine the consequences for journalism of standing one conspiracy up. What creates cynicism is not mistakes; it is allegations of misconduct. But misconduct is what has impact.

Roll that wine around on the tongue before you realize it’s vinegar: It’s not politicians messing up that makes voters cynical but reporters calling them on misconduct.

Third, the fear of missing out means today’s media, more than ever before, hunts in a pack. In these modes it is like a feral beast, just tearing people and reputations to bits. But no-one dares miss out.

Fourth, rather than just report news, even if sensational or controversial, the new technique is commentary on the news being as, if not more important than the news itself. So – for example – there will often be as much interpretation of what a politician is saying as there is coverage of them actually saying it. In the interpretation, what matters is not what they mean; but what they could be taken to mean. This leads to the incredibly frustrating pastime of expending a large amount of energy rebutting claims about the significance of things said, that bears little or no relation to what was intended.

In turn, this leads to a fifth point: the confusion of news and commentary. Comment is a perfectly respectable part of journalism. But it is supposed to be separate. Opinion and fact should be clearly divisible.

I got off the phone with a TV producer today doing a segment on objectivity in journalism arguing that this distinction between opinion and fact was never clear as journalists convinced themselves it was. There is opinion — perspective, bias, experience, judgment — in any journalistic judgment. The question is whether you have been transparent about that vantage point so others may judge what you say.

Blair simply gives up hope that “new forms of communication [read: the internet] would provide new outlets to by-pass the increasingly shrill tenor of the traditional media. In fact, the new forms can be even more pernicious, less balanced, more intent on the latest conspiracy theory multiplied by five.” But then he argues that he has found the new business model for news. “They need to re-assert their own selling point: the distinction between news and comment.” Eureka! And please ignore all that comment against us nice politicians.

It’s time that he go because he could not bear the open comment of the people who are the new media.